Greenfield residents urge council to pass ordinance on tax-taking process

By MARY BYRNE

Staff Writer

Published: 06-12-2023 10:04 AM

GREENFIELD — In light of the unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruling last month that local governments can only retain tax debts owed — and no more — when seizing and selling private property, residents are urging City Council to pass a local ordinance to ensure that all revenue from a sale beyond tax debts owed would be returned to the former owner.

Residents are also encouraging the City Council to pass an ordinance that would ensure reasonable efforts are made to contact all property owners who fall within the statute of limitations and offer restitution. These requests were penned in a letter to councilors by residents Al Norman, Mitchell Speight and Joan Marie Jackson.

“The town basically has money that doesn’t belong to it, so the city should return that money,” said Norman, who has long been a proponent of banning the practice, which opponents have dubbed “home equity theft.” “I’m hoping the city sees the moral wisdom … but also the financial wisdom of avoiding paying legal bills for cases filed against them.”

Massachusetts, along with 11 other states, has allowed local governments to foreclose on private property when taxes were overdue and keep all the proceeds, even if the taxes owed were a fraction of that amount.

The case the Supreme Court ruled on in May involved a 94-year-old Minnesota woman who owed $15,000 in back taxes when the county government foreclosed on her condominium. The court ruled that the $25,000 extra that the county collected when the condo was sold violated the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment.

The issue has received attention locally, including in Greenfield, where advocates have been pushing city government to stop the practice. In November, City Council supported a resolution urging the Legislature to reform the Massachusetts tax title-taking process. The resolution follows Mayor Roxann Wedegartner’s letter to area legislators, urging them to sign on as co-sponsors of state legislation S.921, which was refiled in January by Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton. The bill had a hearing in the Judiciary Committee on May 9.

Among those who testified before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary were Greenfield residents Joan Marie Jackson and Mitchell Speight. The couple were almost evicted from their house in recent years, and would have lost $219,000 in equity if their house had sold for its appraised value at public auction.

“This decision is great,” Speight said following the Supreme Court decision last month. “I think it will force all the states that are still participating in egregious theft to repeal their laws.”

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Comerford said Friday that the Supreme Court’s decision “opens the door for states to figure out how to legislate this in the best way possible.”

“The court ruled on whether or not it was constitutional for states to do this, or municipalities to do this, and they said no, it’s not constitutional,” Comerford said. “But that doesn’t mean that immediately things happen. Maybe some places will abide by the court’s ruling, but it needs a legislative framework to figure it out. That’s where the bill comes in. Basically, the Supreme Court opened a huge door to the passage of this bill.”

She said the court’s decision “gives a turbo boost” to statewide efforts to determine the foreclosure process moving forward.

“Greenfield really is driving this in a very positive way,” Comerford said of local advocacy. “I think municipalities have a lot of ability to do their own work. This is a statewide effort because not every municipality will think the same way.”

Norman echoed a similar sentiment.

“There are two things [that City Council] could do now … that would make a big difference,” he said, referencing the two ordinance proposals. “We’re trying to remind people that the local level … has the power to do things.”

An earlier version of this article had the incorrect bill number. The bill that addresses the tax title-taking process is S.921. 

Reporter Mary Byrne can be reached  at mbyrne@recorder.com or 413-930-4429. Twitter: @MaryEByrne.

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